DENVER — Gone, but never forgotten, the ABA is enjoying a curtain call this season — all thanks to the Denver Nuggets.
Nearly 50 years after the breakup of the old, renegade league, with its red-white-and-blue basketballs and the 3-point arc that has redefined the modern game, the Nuggets finally broke through to become the last of the four ABA teams — Spurs, Pacers, Nets and Nuggets — who survived the 1976 merger to make the NBA Finals. Denver hosts Miami in Game 1 on Thursday.
One of the nicest compliments those old ABA Nuggets can pay to today’s group: These Nuggets remind them of them.
“The new NBA is like the old ABA,” David Thompson, ‘The Skywalker,’ told The Associated Press in a phone interview from his home in Charlotte, North Carolina. “This Nuggets team, we’re pulling for them. I want them to finish the job that we didn’t quite get done.”
Thompson’s career with the Nuggets straddled their ABA and NBA days. He is such a fan of the modern-day Nuggets that a signed Nikola Jokic jersey is a coveted keepsake in his trophy room, which includes one of those multicolored basketballs, signature shoes with “DT” on them, along with some memorabilia of Thompson’s national title run with North Carolina State in 1974.
Some say “The Joker” — a mold-breaking big man who loves a fancy pass as much as a score — would have fit in perfectly in the ABA, the league that featured an up-and-down, frenetic tempo pushed by iconoclastic game-changers like Julius Erving (Dr. J) and George Gervin (Iceman), Rick Barry, Artis Gilmore and, of course, Thompson and his teammate, the head-faking, jump-shooting center, Dan Issel.
“It’s really funny that some 50 years later, I think the ABA is more popular now than it was when we were actually playing in it,” said Issel, the Hall of Famer who is a member of the National Basketball Retired Players Association. “It was an exciting brand of basketball. It’s a lot of what the league looks like today.”
It began, oddly enough, out of a failed attempt by sports entrepreneur Dennis Murphy to place an American Football League (AFL) team in Orange County, California. By the time Murphy came up with that plan, the AFL and NFL were already moving toward a merger.
“I thought, ‘There’s only one basketball league and one hockey league, so why not have another?’” Murphy said in the 1990 book ‘Loose Balls’ by Terry Pluto that recounts the history of the ABA. “Since I knew nothing about hockey, and basketball was my favorite sport, I figured I’d pursue the idea of a basketball league.”
In addition to starting a talent war with the NBA, the ABA entertained America with nine seasons of wonderful wackiness.
Possibly the most memorable day came in the last season, 1976, when the All-Star Game in Denver was highlighted by a first-of-its-kind slam-dunk contest. Dr. J took off from the free-throw line for an era-defining dunk that won the title. Some might remember the pre-game concert at McNichols Arena featuring Glen Campbell (“Rhinestone Cowboy”).
To close out the season, the Nuggets faced Dr. J and the New York Nets in the last ABA final. Erving and the Nets beat Issel, Thompson and coach Larry Brown, 4-2.
The next season, the ABA and NBA agreed to a merger of sorts. The ABA took in the teams in San Antonio, New York, Indiana and Denver. Until this season, all but the Nuggets have played in at least one NBA Finals. Of the teams, only the Spurs have won it all — five times, to be exact. Any title or deep trip through the playoffs by any of those teams has always been met with excitement among that prideful group of ABA alumni.
“We had more of a chip on our shoulder than most of the teams in the NBA because we had come from the ABA,” said Bobby Jones, the Nuggets’ defensive specialist in the 1970s who would go on to win an NBA title with a Philadelphia 76ers team led by Dr. J and Moses Malone in 1983. “We really felt like we had we had a score to settle for that, to show that the ABA teams were good.”
This year, Jones & Co., are celebrating the fact that it’s the Nuggets who are good. It took 47 seasons in the NBA to make their first Finals. Making it more sweet was that they did it against the establishment — the Los Angeles Lakers, a team that had beaten them in seven of seven playoff series over the decades before Denver swept LeBron James and his Lakers out of the playoffs.
Thompson said he was in bed watching the closing seconds of the clincher. The player known for his explosive vertical leap jumped out of bed as the horn sounded and his former team reached new heights.
“I used whatever’s left of my 44-inch vertical leap, just yelling and screaming,” Thompson said. “I started getting thousands of texts from all my friends all over the country. Everybody’s rooting for the Nuggets.”
Back in the day, nobody sold the Nuggets harder than their general manager, Carl Scheer, a visionary who made an art out of padding attendance figures and, in a single stroke of genius, came up with the dunk contest. That contest would become a staple of All-Star weekend in 1984, when the Nuggets, now entrenched in the NBA, hosted the gala. What Dr. J and Thompson started has become an annual staple. Dominique Wilkins, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Nate Robinson, Dee Brown, Vince Carter and even 5-foot-6 Spud Webb are among those who have taken home titles.
Now, all the talk in Denver is about an NBA title.
Issel guesses this special run will leave Jokic as the best player to ever wear a Nuggets uniform, followed by guard Jamal Murray, with all the Nuggets of the past — Issel, Alex English, Thompson, Carmelo Anthony and the rest — moving down a notch.
Still, nobody will forget the teams that started it all.
“We felt like we were the underdogs and we were good and not a lot of people realized it at the time,” said Issel, who still ranks 12th on the NBA-ABA all-time scoring list. “There was just a feeling that we were doing something special in the ABA.”
AP National Writer Eddie Pells contributed to this report.